Closing the Gap: Government, NGOs integrate Arab Israelis and ultra-Orthodox into Israeli High-Tech Economy

An ultra-Orthodox woman works at Matrix Global, a hi-tech company, in Modiin Illit.
An ultra-Orthodox woman works at Matrix Global, a hi-tech company, in Modiin Illit.

By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
eJewish Philanthropy

Arab Israeli Reem Younis grew up in Nazareth in Israel’s Upper Galilee. Inspired by her Jewish Israeli high school science and math teacher, she applied and was accepted to the Technion. In the late 80s and early 90s, there were virtually no Arabs involved in the burgeoning Israeli high-tech scene, which was then dominated by security/military tech. However, infatuated by civil engineering and how buildings stand and collapse, nothing could stop Younis from pursuing her education.

But after marrying a fellow Arab Israeli student and electrical engineer, both of them securing entry level tech jobs, Younis couldn’t shake the ill feeling that other Arab Israelis were having so much trouble entering the high-tech industry.

“We decided we needed to start a high-tech company to employ Arab engineers,” Younis recalls of her decision in 1993 to leave her integrated city life in Haifa and move back to Nazareth, where she and he husband founded Alpha Omega, a leading company in the field of Neuroscience and functional neurosurgery for the treatment of neurological and psychiatric diseases, and then Alpha-Cad, a company that specializes in supplying complete CAD solutions, mainly for construction businesses.

Today, Alpha Omega employs 75 people at its Nazareth headquarters and has become role model for Israeli Arab entrepreneurial success in Israel.

In another part of the country, haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Nili Davidovitz was raised in the traditional Jewish way of life. However, a family move to the States during high school led her to Bais Yaakov School for Girls and later a computer science degree from Queens College, fulfilling a long-time dream to work with computers and more specifically, develop software to run on them.

“Most of my haredi friends became teachers,” Davidovitz says of her environment in the late 80s and early 90s.

After returning to Israel, marrying and having five children who entered the traditional haredi education system where few core subjects – math, English, science – are taught and a majority of the community lives in destitution (52 percent of families were living in poverty in 2013, according to the National Insurance Institute), she decided she would play a role in helping women like herself get and stay out of poverty.

Davidovitz is now the CEO and founder of one of Israel’s top software projects company – Daat, exclusively hiring and empowering Haredi women and offering them successful careers side by side with their ability to lead their religious lifestyle and find the time to raise children and be active in their communities. Daat works with Israel’s largest companies including Bank Leumi, Clal Insurance, Cellcom and Straus Group.

A Win-Win for Both Parties

In the last decade, the Israeli government has been working closely with several NGOs to integrate both the ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israeli communities into the workforce with the goal of closing economic gaps in these traditionally underserved communities and boosting growth for the entire economy. Haredim made up 11 percent of the population in 2014 and this figure is expected to rise to 18 percent by 2034. Arab Israelis comprise around 21 percent of the Israeli population.

The task of integrating these cohorts into the workforce is not easy, explained Dr. Gilad Malach, head of the Ultra-Orthodox program at the Israel Democracy Institute.

“These communities share the same challenge of how to help them integrate into the workforce, but the barriers to entry are different and therefore the solutions are different,” explained Malach.

Malach said barriers to employment in the ultra-Orthodox sector include a lack of general studies, matriculation certificates and professional qualifications; cultural barriers, such as large families and hesitancy to work in mixed-gender environments; a lack of information about employment possibilities and job openings; and reluctance by non-religious employers to hire people they perceive as different.

Despite these challenges, the first stages of government efforts have proved fruitful. Between 2003 and 2014, the share of ultra-Orthodox men with gainful employment rose from 51 percent to 71 percent. However, the average wage of ultra-Orthodox employees was less than 80 percent of the average wage in the economy. Similarly, while in 2014 74 percent of Haredi women were employed – up from 55 percent in 2005 – in 2013, Haredi women earned 5,838 NIS ($1554.) per month compared with 8,066 NIS ($2147.) for all Israeli women.

Last year, Malach presented a Master Plan for Ultra-Orthodox Employment in Israel to the government, currently in its first stages of implementation. Rather than focusing on participation in the workforce, Malach and his team suggested increasing Haredi income levels, encouraging Haredi employees to work longer hours and improving the possibilities of these workers to receive promotions through expanded occupational training and academic programs and incentives for non-Orthodox workers to hire ultra-Orthodox staff.

Similarly, despite its size, the Arab Israeli community contributes only 8 percent to the country’s GDP, according to Younis. Arab women’s labor participation rate is 34.7 percent, up from 27 percent in 2012, but nearly 45 percent below the work participation rates for Jewish women, as reported by the Interagency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues.

“Within five year, Israel will be lacking up to 10,000 engineers and the Jewish community cannot supply that demand,” explained Younis. “[High-tech integration] is a win-win for both parties.”

Younis said barriers to entry for the Arab Israeli community include fear of acceptance (only 50 percent of Arab graduates from engineering college apply for jobs with Israeli companies); location, in that the majority of Israel’s high-tech scene is concentrated in the center of the country and the majority of Arab Israelis live in the periphery; language; and lack of connections through military service.

NGOs have been working alongside the government to help train Arab entrepreneurs and leaders to overcome these barriers. One of those NGOs is PresenTense Israel, which spearheaded NazTech, the first startup accelerator for Arab entrepreneurs in Israel.

“The numbers are quantifiable,” says PresenTense Israel head Guy Spigelman. “There are around 70 funded startups led by Arabs in Israel at the moment and our graduates are over 10 of those. … They are getting funding from venture capital funds, they are employing people. And most run mixed Jewish-Arab companies, which are also building society.”

Spigelman says it is becoming increasingly obvious that Israel must develop a society where all of its citizens have opportunities to thrive.

“It is not enough to hire Arabs at Jewish companies,” he says. “We should be encouraging young Arabs to dream about opening their own businesses and to be entrepreneurial. … We need to make sure all parts of society are part of the Israeli success story.”

Younis and Davidovitz will be in the States to tell their collective stories later this month, at the International Lion of Judah Conference and at a special “Minority Women Tech Leaders” event co-sponsored by the Maryland/Israel Development Center, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, the Greater Washington Forum on Israeli Arab Issues, the Embassy of Israel to the United States, New Israel Fund and HeraHub.

Full disclosure: Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman is director of international communications at IDI, where Malach also works.